There was a time that photography was an individual struggle with light and matter.
Nicéphore Niépce, William Henry Fox Talbot, Frederick Scott Archer, Theodore Lilianthal, Louis Daguerre. Heros in their own right. Their sophisticated and often fascinating experiments would permanently change our relationship with the world.
From the first time I saw the “view from the window at Le Gras” I was deeply affected by the obscure and profound attempts these giants made at trying to bridge our realms of understanding, awareness and possibilty. For me, they never get old. Deeply personal and deeply committed. Purposeful fumblings in the dark that would underpin an age that has since again been completely lost. Only their shadows, fixed on paper and glass remain.
It turns out there are a few more components to taking a picture than aiming at something and pressing a button. Today most of that thinking is done for you. Certainly some powerful new options have arisen since we ditched all the base drudgery; but my thoughts still wobble around what this might mean.
Solid experience makes me reluctant to stray very far from the black box with a hole idea. And there is much to be said for experience especially when placed next to ideas. Not to put it lightly, but as someone once said …”Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth”. But back to the black box with a hole idea.
It wasn’t long after I learned that pointing a camera at a light-bulb and pressing the springy button would light up the little red circle for a specific amount of time, click-pause-click, that I began my study of optics.
Not having tools to take apart the shutter, optics proved to be an easier pursuit. I already had the seed of scientific inquiry deeply planted and taking root. Namely that the Kodak Duaflex allowed us to see into some kind of parallel dimension that need to be investigated. And that everything in this universe was backwards. I knew having been created by man, the secrets could not be held for long. It was only a matter of time.
Following this idea and over a particularly short period I would stumble across or be given some amazing discoveries that seemed rather far apart and unrelated at the time. Most breakthroughs are seldom concise. We often don’t understand or appreciate the things we have in our hands. Not to mention the small fact I had no concept that I was studying optics.
Over time I’ve come to appreciate how random and innocently solid understanding comes. The most important ingredient it seems, is plenty of time free from obstruction to play around and explore to your heart’s content. To walk away and then calmly return days and even years later with new and unrelated experiences that we can apply to our exploration and take up our study once again.
I like to think this period of my childhood was a special time where great science was finally placed in the hands of the youngest kids. Their excited minds ready to take on the greatest challenges in new and novel ways. Given the new tools and information – not in the ‘I can look it up on Wikipedia sense’ but dropped directly into your hands in a ‘hey check this out’ kind of way.
I think the first was the milk carton periscope revelation. My first double reflex camera, film wasn’t necessary, it used memory to do the job. Looking back I still wonder today if screens or paper are really up to the task?
Milk cartons along with cereal boxes, scotch-tape, straws, construction paper, paper clips and paper plates were the building blocks of the age. Plentiful, accessible and cheap. They allowed countless experiments and iterations in the drive to make technology succeed. Every house held its own little Elon Musk. Dreaming, developing, building and constantly told to stop using so much tape.
The main drive of the periscope was to allow you to see around corners, fascinating no doubt. But it was clear to any idiot that periscopes were designed for one purpose and that was to turn you into a spy. An exciting prospect at the time, as a kid there is always plenty to spy on. And with a little imagination you could be a marine.
The guy they sent to get things done. Marines would try out stuff no matter how dangerous it was. They’d turn back with a big grin on their face, helmet in waving in their hand yelling c’mon let’s go. This is a guy you might want to be. This was a post war vision you could be part of until the ongoing green beret vs marine argument got started and follows us down to today. And you could ignore the hidden sense that it was ok that optics and film were woven into surveillance that should be increasingly turned on everyday life. Ultimately aesthetics like religion would become useless and cameras could turn to serve more powerful gods.
More important to me however, was the fact that when you looked into the periscope, the image remained right side up. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the part about spying. I made dozens of these (I still have no idea where the small square mirrors came from). Each one different. Longer, narrower, wider, I tried increasingly to darken the inside. Inherently I began to understand what others before me had. The box had to be black.
I taped construction paper to the inside. Painted the pieces of cardboard before folding them into a ‘scope’. I tried pressure fitting the mirrors in place. Fitting them in slots and relying on tape. Trying out different sized holes to see what they did. With no idea how much I was learning, I was simply thrilled to be looking into a box and always seeing it right side up.
The camera lucida was a gift from my grandmother. It was supposed to help me draw roses and bugs. And god knows I tried endless times to get it to work. I remember laying on the back lawn in the shade and studiously drew what I could.
Introducing paper and pencil to the equation was a major step in the right direction. It provided a technical means of recording what I was seeing. And I was vaguely aware that I was doing what some of the great master artists had done. I was struggling along with Durer and DaVinci but again I had no idea who they were or what it meant.
The only artist I knew was Van Gogh. And I knew he wasn’t really good at drawing hands. Who knows, maybe he needed a camera lucida? I did know he was exceptionally good at colour and composing, especially when he made pictures of boats. But this was far away from my little camera lucida, and I was more interested in using it as a cheap pepper’s ghost.
Like other renaissance artists of the 15thC, I was going to have to wait a number of years before discovering a sure-fire way of directly capturing light. The imaginative leap required would evade me for years. I would pursue the drawing for quite some time. Comparing my own results with Niépce’s view from the window at Le Gras and wondering if eight good hours of skilled camera-lucida drawing might not offer similar results.
I actually don’t know which came first – the camera lucida or the milk-box version of pepper’s ghost? I suspect it was pepper’s ghost. Hailing from twin worlds of magic and stagecraft. The ‘lucida’ was a technology that was dedicated strictly to science and art.
My pepper’s ghost was nothing as fine as the one above, I wouldn’t even see this illustrations for another twenty years. Mine came from a book that I owned that was more valuable than any literary classic or even gold. It was called The Pik-Kwik Book of Magic.
Simple, sparse, minimalist and modern, it wasn’t like the National Geographic or even the educational Golden Books. The latter two were like shoe boxes. Limited in supply and the type of resource grown-ups liked you to use. They were purposeful and had value, and didn’t use them to just goof around. Along with scotch-tape and scissors, it put grown-ups square in the chain of production. There was no way science was going to evolve with that.
I’m pretty sure the plans for both the periscope and pepper’s ghost came out of the Pik-Kwik book. But of the two I remember the ghost the best. The diagram below shows you as much as I would know. But after building a couple you’ll get the idea.
Just keep in mind that this simple plan still remains powerful and sophisticated enough to get Michael Jackson onto the 2014 Billboard award stage. It makes heads-up displays and teleprompters work. And word has it that even my Panasonic zs-50 viewfinder has one.
As a kid, most of the books explaining how this stuff works were confusing and not very helpful. It wasn’t until years later as a theatrical lighting designer that I wandered back into their midst. But they did introduce me to an idea that you could use pictures as a clear and concise attempt at explaining the world. At least the part of it you saw. Not to mention an introduction to technical drawing which stayed with me all my life.
In the end, these highly developed toys left me with a rich experience of exploring the visual world. This basic black box with a hole coupled with some basic optical tools and unrecorded memory managed to give me a solid baseline to compare everything else.
At some point early on in life, I’m not quite sure why, I was shown how to put film into this camera and take it outside and actually take pictures! I must have been pretty young at the time, but I had already apprenticed for many hours with the top flipped up, staring down into the thick glass, trying to get my bearings with the mirror image in front of me.
There were not many things more exiting in life than swinging the camera one way and having a mirrored square of the world speed off in the opposite direction.
I knew it was a camera. It had to be with its deep claret red circle on the back that you could just see the light through. It wasn’t particularly special when the back was open ; but when the shutter was pressed the little red circle was bathed in light. Combine this with the sound of the metal leaf shutter sliding out of the way and it was pure magic.
If a camera is a nothing more than a black box with a hole in it, then this one was a real step up from the one I had. Capable of taking the most sophisticated double exposures with alien hokey-bokeh effects and lomo craziness that even the most dedicated hipster would die for. Not to mention the black and white retro cachet.
I’m still impressed with the stunning design job done by the Kodak team on such a simple machine. From the pebbled sides and great proportioning to the black plastic strap that could have been made straight out of a box of Broadway licorice ribbon.
Sling it around your neck, look down (and sideways just for fun) and you were suddenly part of the wilder world of Weegee and the front page of the daily news.
Once it actually had film in it, I didn’t really know what to do with a camera . And I certainly didn’t have a clue what I was doing.
Up to this point, a camera was pure technology. Something that made cool noises, came apart so you could explore the inside in order to guess what everything did, and once closed up you could point directly at light bulbs and watch the red circle light up with astounding precision whenever you were ready. The duaflex II featured one added bonus, the ability to explore the world in another dimension. A world in reverse.
My first and only camera up to this point was a Kodak Baby Brownie. As much a point and click machine as you are ever going to see. A pocket-sized art-deco masterpiece in bakelite. An indestructible 2 piece monster that represented the first step away from the paste-card and leather boxes that evolved into the iPhone today.
That is, it would be pocket-size if you had a special pair of cargo pants and didn’t mind a block the size of a rubiks cube banging against your leg. Granted, it did have wonderfully curved features and epic design capable of making todays cellphone fanatics wet their pants. And for small hands, it was a treasure to hold and easy to use. That is if it had film in it, which never seemed to be the case.
For some reason every memory I have of the Baby Brownie is when it’s apart. Or in some stage of being taken apart and reassembled. Thing was, I was going to be an inventor even if I had no idea how to get there. But with my germanium-Rocket-Radio and Girder-and-Panel building set figured I could just start taking things apart and put them back together again while observing carefully and eventually I would arrive. I knew I was onto something. Science, technology , progress – it was bound to work out. Like the communists and americans with their space race, how could it not???
But once I got the back of this sucker open I found there were a few more parts. Here my friends was something else. Originally it wasn’t my camera, that would come later. It was my mom’s.
She showed me how to take out the old spool and put it in the bottom with the wide side out. Put in the new spool facing the right way, pull the paper down and thread it through the slot. Give it a few turns to make sure it folded over properly and then close the back.
The round red window now took on new meaning as you slowly wound the film through, carefully watching the line and letters until the number 1 lined up center in the window.
Now you were all set! The next 12 times you pressed the button would get you a picture. The idea was that each one of them could be separate, as long as you remembered to advance the film. Forgetting the lens cap wouldn’t come until later with even more complicated equipment.
Somehow, Kodak had managed to take a bulky and unmanageable process; wet plates of glass, tin and collodion and sliding them into heavy wooden boxes pulling out slides, pressing the shutter, putting the slide back in and hanging around to deal with physicality of chemistry before moving on to the next picture; put it all onto a roll the size of a shotgun shell and drop it in the hands of ordinary people. This idea would change the world.
At the end of the roll you simply wound up the paper, licked the gummy tasting seal and taped it shut and dropped it off at the drugstore where it would be sent away for upwards of a week and return with the pictures you thought you’d taken.
I already knew from looking at other pictures that they would come back square and mostly grey with great deckle edges that I pine for today. Sometimes they were washed out, sometimes too much contrast, but mostly they were perfect. A little like reception on TV.
If you worked at it like some grown-ups did, you could get a great picture that everyone liked. A skill akin to adjusting the rabbit-ears on top of the set. All of a sudden the world tuned in and everyone was happy. Mostly pictures were of people. At least they were if you pointed a camera at them which seemed to be the one thing most people did.
The thing is that the people were either posing or doing stupid everyday things they always did at special occasions. I already knew most of them. Knew their poses, and knew the routines they were famous for. In real life they were always happy to repeat their pose or performance on command so what was the point. That’s what memory was. For when they weren’t around. And somehow pictures never ‘captured the occasion’. Even if there were two, three or even four of them.
All the sights, smells and sounds. The great way you feel when you laugh. The squabbling and mini-crisis’. The conversations and jokes and renewed acquaintances. As a document of who was there okay, but I was a little young to be into that. I loved to remember and remembering wasn’t pictures. I didn’t know what pictures were, but I was determined to somehow to find out.
As far as I know, this is the first picture I took. The toboggan run in Waterloo Park.
If this isn’t my actual picture, the one I took was so similar it may as well be. I seemed to take a lot of pictures like this. I wanted to use the camera to explore. To capture things like “skiing’ at the new north hill at Chicopee. To catch the exhilaration and expanse. The quality of light and it’s effects on objects. To say something about movement and space. To somehow make sense of and snatch at this backward universe that so brightly glowed my glass.
It’s a like taking pictures with a radio telescope. Or knowing how to study chromatography, especially from space. The elements are there, there’s no denying something happened, but previous knowledge and educated guesses have to guide us along.
To this day, even with a smart phone, photographs always come from the past. From another dimension. No longer inhabiting the universe we’re in and only hinting at an outline of what was. An affectation of the soul. An act of imagination.
And it’s still the same. Always looking down into that little black box; down into an alternate world that has its own rules, its own dimensions, and hopefully in a desperate act of magic I try to understand what it is I see and press that button and pray. Close my eyes and wait to see what comes back.
- Harness the power of radio waves and germanium crystals !
- No batteries !
- No electricity !
- A scientific wonder !
- Trouble free – private enjoyment with Hi Fi Tone quality !